June 25, 2018, by Peter Kirwan

Macbeth @ Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, York

NB while to my knowledge there is no official press night, this piece concerns the first ‘preview’ of Macbeth.

‘I begin to grow a’weary of the sun’. Macbeth looked it, too. On the hottest day of the year so far, the cast of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre’s Macbeth performed in direct sunlight in temperatures of 31 degrees, wearing heavy furs and armour. While the audience retreated away from the stage to wilt in the shade, the fact that the cast made it through their first public performance was reason enough to be jubilant.

Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre is the latest in a worldwise series of ‘pop-up’ Elizabethan theatres. It’s an extraordinary endeavour. From the outside, it’s a distorted, angular, almost cubist mock-up of a timbered Tudor theatre sits inside a makeshift Renaissance fair, with shops and stalls, a ‘Romeo and Juliet garden’, beer and chips, and a three-piece band of minstrels in the corner. On the inside, it’s a vertiginous steel scaffolding structure around a decent sized pit. The stage itself, at least as it was set up for Macbeth (I don’t know how much variation there is between productions) privileged adaptability rather than any version of authenticity – there were five entrances at stage level, including a large protruding central space with heavy doors, as well as two side boxes which conceivably could also allow access straight onto the stage; then two winding staircases leading up to a substantial balcony area with another three access points into the tiring house. The musicians sat even higher aloft on a third storey.

It’s hard to assess the effectiveness of the space for creating atmosphere. The heat (and complete lack of any air circulation), combined with what looked like a perhaps-half-full house on a Monday matinee, left the atmosphere quite sparse and quiet from my seat, and the choice to make heavy use of a smoke machine and onstage fire didn’t help with the stifling air. Despite an onstage plea from the director, the overwhelming majority of the pit audience chose to sit or lie (or wilt) on the floor rather than stand. Voices outside the auditorium regularly drowned out the actors from the top-price seats, so I’d try to get as close as possible if going again. But this may also have simply been an issue of the acoustics from my seat; certainly the applause the production got was enthusiastic and long.

Damien Cruden’s production was, I think, the fullest Macbeth I’ve ever seen. Hecate and the witches’ songs were present more or less in full; Young Siward died bravely; even Lennox and the Gentlemen got to perform the whole of 3.6, which I don’t recall ever seeing. Particularly as the play reached its concluding movements, the cast of over twenty filled the stage with constant movement, using all of the entrances and stairwells to slowly converge en masse on Macbeth, and the changing loyalties of figures like Angus, Lennox and Menteith were unusually clear as they joined Siward and Malcolm’s forces.

Commendably, and perhaps unsurprisingly given Cruden’s previous form with site-specific theatre, the production took full advantage of the Rose’s space, especially the yard. A particularly thrilling moment came as Macbeth chased Banquo’s Ghost (which remained invisible) off the stage and into the pit, running around among the audience looking for his persecutor while the rest of the thanes remained onstage, watching him pityingly. Later, the English forces crouched as they moved among the audience, advancing slowly towards the stage while Macbeth prepared to meet his enemies. During the interval, the cast popped out to mingle with the crowd, taking selfies and showing off their swords while they prepared for the banquet scene. At times, the afternoon approached the flavour of a promenade production, albeit one where the audience remained firmly seated while the cast walked over them.

The production came alive during these uses of the yard and in larger action scenes. While the production dwelled on the actual moments of murder for rather longer than necessary (Mark Holgate’s Banquo flailed on the floor for ages while the murderers ran forward to slash repeatedly at his legs), the mass battle of the invasion of Dunsinane, with Macduff battering down the central doors with his shoulders and several interweaving sword fights, showed off Jonathan Holby’s fight choreography. The central opening became a death gallery – the production’s finest image was of the wounded Young Siward (Rina Mahoney) on the floor, withdrawing in fear from the advancing Macbeth, who raised his sword over him just as the doors closed to conceal them. The interplay between locus and platea as manifest in Macbeth’s soliloquies was also effective in the space, Richard Standing stepping clearly apart from others on stage and fully encompassing the audience, directing his questions outwards.

Conversely, the production was less gripping in its more conversational scenes, when the blocking seemed to imagine a very different kind of theatre space. When actors were stood right next to each other for dialogue scenes, speaking relatively quietly to one another, the imagined world receded a long way from the audience (not helped by the gradual retreat of the pit audience away from the stage to get out of the direct sun), and one hopes that, as the company get more experience in the space, they’ll find more dynamic ways of realising the quieter scenes.

The space and the chance to see relatively rarely staged sequences was novelty enough, but the production’s main conceptual choices involved, inevitably, the witches. As designer Sara Perks explains in her programme note, the world of this Macbeth did not include any supernatural elements; instead, the ‘witches’ were imagined as ordinary people playing at being witches. Beginning as one man and two women, the witches slowly added to their number throughout the production, donning found costumes and animal skulls, and putting on screechy voices when incanting. Hecate (Amanda Ryan) was Lady Macbeth’s waiting woman, and also took over Seyton’s part; she became a liminal figure between the two worlds, escorting Macbeth to and from the witches. The idea that there was no supernatural element didn’t entirely come across; while one might concoct the narrative that these were the Macbeths’ servants (and later the murderers) deliberately gaslighting their master, there wasn’t anything to specifically suggest that. But the ominous, growing presence of the ‘witches’ in Macbeth’s home, guarding the entrances and exits, increased the sense of the world closing in on him.

As this was a first preview, I’ll refrain from commenting too much on the individual performances. Some were early standouts – Antony Bunsee’s Siward was a powerful, commanding presence, especially next to Emilio Iannucci’s quieter Malcolm. The actor playing Ross (who is not the same as the actor identified in the programme) was a sympathetic presence throughout, a gothic warrior who showed empathy when faced with the devastation of Macbeth’s reign, and who devoted a great deal of time to picking up and carrying out the slaughtered body of Young Macduff. Holgate had less opportunity to make an impact as Banquo (especially given his absence from the banquet scene), but Paul Hawkyward was a roaring, no-nonsense Macduff, who threw aside his own sword during the final battle so that he could beat Macbeth to death with his bare hands. And Fine Time Fontayne dragged out the Porter scene for all it was worth, though ended on a surprisingly sombre, serious note.

The central two were fine, though interestingly the rather fuller text meant that they dominated the production less than is often the case, and Macbeth in particular became a literally peripheral figure during the apparitions scene, sitting at the edge of the stage while wailing witches emerged from the trapdoor holding dolls and bringing out children. This Macbeth seemed pragmatic, confident, and relatively straightforward in his actions, rarely showing doubt (though Standing notably shook and convulsed while holding the daggers following the murder); his brisk approach fitted the action-oriented production, but his verse delivery meant that Macbeth’s more reflective side had some time. Leandra Ashton, meanwhile, seemed to be playing Lady Macbeth as straight-up evil, wicked smiles and all, and with a lovely moment of chagrin as Macbeth dismissed her following the coronation. The presence of her ambivalent servant (Hecate) framed her actions as if a devil on her shoulder. Her biggest impact, though, was her actual death scene, when the keening of women started up outside the auditorium and continued all through ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’, offering an eerie underscore to Macbeth’s speech.

The production’s atmosphere was perhaps best summed up by two moments at the very end, one intended and one presumably not. Small hints at the broader agenda of the witches emerged throughout the production, as when Hecate picked up the bell Lady Macbeth had rung while sleepwalking, and chimed it herself to let herself through the central doors, and the production ended with the witches and Hecate once more onstage, with the witches speaking the opening lines of the play until ending on ‘there to meet with …’ leaving the name of their subsequent victim unspoken. While I wasn’t sure the concept thoroughly merited the sense of agency/causality, it offered an effective undermining of Malcolm’s triumph on high. But slightly earlier, Macduff had attempted to throw Macbeth’s head up to Malcolm several times, missing twice so that the head rolled about the stage to the exhausted laughter of the whole cast. Even if unintended, the palpable sense of relief – post-opening performance and post-battle – did feel earned, as did the energetic applause.

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